War Story Of Service In HMS Firedrake
Dr John Aldren
HMS Firedrake's Doctor
May 1941 ~ November 1942.
World War II started in September 1939, I was a final year medical
student and so was kept back from conscription into the forces.
This was not completed until April 1941. At a meeting
for young doctors awaiting call-up, we were told that we would
all go into the Army without any question. This rather annoyed
me as I would have preferred to serve in the Navy.
managed to get into the Navy by going up to London on my own initiative
to the medical Director general of the Navy's office in St. James
Street, and said I was in London and might I have a medical as
I was about to join the Navy. This was done forthwith and
I was soon called up to report to Chatham Barracks.
paid for my unofficial route to the Navy as I was in so quickly
that I had no uniform and spent my first two weeks in Chatham
Barracks in civilian clothes. Luckily there were two or three
dental surgeons in the same position and we had to wear a trilby
hat at all times which we raised in acknowledgment of the salutes
from the ratings, which was rather frequently in a large naval
I was not in barracks very long and one day I received my appointment
to HMS Firedrake which was undergoing a refit in Chatham dockyard,
alongside the barracks. It was a miserable week or so we spent in
the dock with all going on. At last we were fit for sea and set
sail from Chatham on a June evening. As we went through the straits
of Dover, it was dark as the RAF were bombing Calais. It was strange
to realise that the searchlights were not ours but the sight and
sound of the bombs going off were ours.
We went to Portsmouth for about a day and then to Plymouth, were
we did our final "working up exercises" including a night
The first operational duty which we were given was to tow a flotilla
of eight M.L.s (motor launches) out to Gibraltar. We were senior
officer of the assembled company which consisted of three other
destroyers and ourselves, each towing two M.L.s. The M.L.s were
being sent to Gibraltar to take over local A/S (anti-submarine)
sweeps and so relieve other larger vessels from that duty. It was
imperative to carry out these antisubmarine sweeps continuously
as it would be quite possible for a U-boat to live off Gibraltar
and torpedo a ship, either entering or leaving port.
towing trip out to Gibraltar was quite hazardous as we hit bad weather
and the tow lines frequently parted, which caused quite a lot of
There was one incident when a member of a M.L.s crew sustained a
compound fracture of his forearm, when a winch handle sprung back
and struck him. My sick berth attendant Peter Kelly went aboard
the M.L. in question to patch him up and bring him back to the Firedrake.
We took good care of him until we finally reached Gib., Which we
did without any other setbacks and safely delivered our eight M.L.s
to their new duties.
We then rejoined our flotilla and became part of the fleet destroyer
screen to Force "H" which was commanded by a brilliant
Admiral called Somerville. His naval title was C. in C. Western
July 20th we sailed from Gib to escort one of the Malta convoys.
The whole convoy was very impressive for, besides the merchant ships,
it was a full fleet operation. The major units of the fleet were
"Renown" in which Somerville was flying his flag, "Ark
Royal", the battleship "Nelson" and several cruisers
including the "Manchester" which was damaged by a torpedo
on July 23rd. The convoy and fleet were escorted by the whole of
our flotilla, the 8th destroyer flotilla.
the morning of July 23rd the "Fearless" was hit by an
aircraft torpedo and her after fuel tanks were set ablaze. Somerville
ordered the Captain of "Fearless" to abandon ship, she
was then sunk by torpedo's from the "Forester" another
destroyer of our flotilla. Fortunately there were only 4 or 5 casualties
in the "Fearless". During that day we sustained a number
of high-level bombing attacks and some attacks from Italian Torpedo
had a very near miss from a torpedo in one of these attacks. Later
that fateful day July 23rd we were near the island of Pantelleria
and were ordered to go ahead of the convoy in company of another
destroyer to sweep for mines. We had TSDS gear (two speed destroyer
sweep) which consisted of paravanes attached to steel cables which
we streamed out aft on either side of our stern. Unfortunately,
the TSDS gear was locked in the low speed setting which reduced
our maneuverability. Soon we were involved in a high level bombing
attack and were straddled by a stick of three 500 Kilo bombs.
Our good Captain Steven Norris had a reputation for "bomb dodging"
but he was hampered by the TSDS gear and the middle bomb of the
stick exploded in the water right alongside No1 boiler room. A large
hole was blown in the starboard side of the ship and No1 boiler
room flooded at once. Stoker Potty Sims was the only significant
casualty as he had both his ear drums badly damaged and I thought
he had probable blast damage to his lungs. Fortunately this was
not the case and after 24hrs rest in the Captains bunk aft, he was
all right except for profound deafness, which ended his naval career.
the explosion we were drifting without power, Admiral Somerville
ordered our Captain to be prepared to abandon ship.
Captain Norris made back a signal to the Admiral "will have
steam on one boiler in twenty minutes" so "Firedrake"
was spared. Actually, it was nearly 48hrs before we had any steam
to make any headway at all. A "Hunt" class destroyer the
Eridge came and stood by us and then towed us for two days on the
long, slow voyage back to Gibraltar.
Many of us thought that the Italians would finish us off. However
there was a small convoy of merchant ships
westward and they took the interest of the enemy. We manage to steam
the long distance back to Gib at about 7 knots.
Towards the end of this epic voyage, Somerville steamed the whole
of Force "H" passed us and all the ships cleared lower
decks and gave us three cheers. There was "Renown", "Ark
Royal" the battleship "Nelson" and several cruisers
a most impressive and emotional occasion.
We eventually reached dry dock in Gib and remained there for 5 or
6 weeks while initial repairs were carried out. When these repairs
were complete, we were able to steam at about 12 knots but No1 boiler
had to be completely rebuilt. This was to be done in Boston Navy
Yard USA and so we set off in company with the cruiser "Manchester"
who was destined to have damage repairs in Philadelphia.
had about 3 months in Boston, where we were generously treated by
most of the Americans. Some of the USN ratings and Irish Boston
police were a bit violent at times to some of our crew when they
were having a drink in waterfront bars, but generally the extent
of the generosity we received was unbelievable.
We had so many invitations in the wardroom that the Captain allocated
officers to accept this hospitality each day. We were in Boston
when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941. There
was a very pleasant Lieutenant Commander USN who was liaison officer
for the RN and USN in Boston Navy Yard.
was actually on the phone to a colleague in Pearl Harbour when the
bombing started and so we were some of the very first to know that
the USA was joining us in the war.
early January 1942 we left Boston to assume our duties and went
to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our first assignment was to accompany a
15,000 ton old Dutch Liner converted to a troopship and a large
freighter called "Large Bay" of similar size. The troopship
was full of young RAF personnel who had completed their flying training
in the USA and Canada, the freighter was full of important stores.
We had in company with us an old American 4 stacker destroyer the
"Belmont". She was one of the US destroyers given to us
under the "Lend Lease" agreement which Churchill had negotiated
with President Roosevelt.
24 hours out of Halifax, we were in foul weather and the temperature
was so low that the spray was freezing on the fo'castle, so much
so that the Captain had crew members chipping the ice away in case
it affected our top weight and made the ship unstable.
9pm on this stormy night, we saw a large orange glow where the "Belmont"
was, on the opposite side of the convoy. It was very sad as it transpired
that the "Belmont" had almost certainly been torpedoed
and we saw nothing of her or any survivors again. It was a very
worrying time as we were left alone with these two very valuable
ships, especially the troopship with her large complement of young
RAF flying personnel.
I did the cyphers and we had a number of signals from the Admiralty
saying "you have again been reported by U-boats, alter course
at 1800 hours to 130 degrees (or whatever)". Even in 1942 we
did have radar which was good enough to pick up U-boat sighting
reports and the Admiralty was able to plot a DF bearing, it was
known to them that we were the only convoy on that bearing.
dramatic alteration of course we were soon so far south that we
were in warm water and even saw some flying fish. Fortunately, our
economical speed was 15 knots, the same as the two ships in our
company. We eventually had to route south about Ireland instead
of going through the normal Transatlantic route via the North Western
Approaches. I remember doing cyphers about the location of our own
minefields as the South Western Approaches were heavily defended
and not normally used by us.
Captain insisted on our two charges following us like a mother
hen with chickens through this hazardous phase of our long voyage.
We eventually got through to the Clyde and much to the relief
of our engineer officer, got alongside the oiler of Gourock, nearly
out of fuel. After this stressful voyage, it was great to feel
safe again and to know that the two valuable merchant ships were
home. We had steamed over 3,500 miles, a record for any destroyer
on one filling of fuel. We had a request to go over to the troopship
to collect a monetary gift from the grateful RAF personnel.
had had a "whip round" and collected several hundred pounds,
which we gave to a fund for the dependents of the ill-fated "Belmont"'s
As an afterthought, I remember that we had dropped all our depth
charges on that voyage, including several "15 charge pattern",
which was about 1 and a half tons of high explosive. We did think
that we had sunk a U-boat at one point but could not hang around
to find out.
There were a number of U-boats missing at the conclusion of hostilities,
which were not accounted for by either side.
the voyage from Halifax we were put on to duties as senior officer
of Transatlantic convoys B7 escort group. A typical escort force
was one destroyer in charge and 5 or 6 small "Flower Class
Corvettes". We plied between Londonderry and Argentia in Newfoundland
and luckily had no major incidents for many months. I was a bit
like a GP, General Practitioner as the only medical officer for
a convoy of 20 to 30 ships.
I usually gave medical advice on a loud hailer but once I did go
aboard a 10,000 ton merchant ship as the chief officer was very
ill. I was taken over in one of our whalers (a large rowing boat).
It was a bit tricky as I had to catch hold of a rope ladder and
climb aboard, this freighter which was rolling a bit in the Atlantic
I remember Leading seaman Underwood who was rowing stroke saying
to me "take the ladder when we are on the crest of a wave,
otherwise you will get your legs broken"!
did what I could for the sick Chief Officer, including putting up
a drip of saline and put some intravenous sulpha drug into the drip.
(We had no antibiotics in those days). I am sure he had a fulminating
septicemia. Unfortunately, he died after some improvement from my
limited treatment. The Captain of the ship was very grateful to
me and insisted I use his cabin as he never left the bridge in war
time. He had a simple bunk on the bridge which all conscientious
commanders did in wartime.
I lived like a king for about three days as I had the Captains cabin
and pajamas, and the Captains steward! I had to stay aboard the
freighter as the sea conditions were such that it was not safe to
return to the "Firedrake".
Most of our North Atlantic duty was uneventful but by the summer
of 1942, U-boats had started to operate off the US Atlantic Coast,
we took a convoy of empty tankers all the way to Curacao in the
Dutch West Indies. We had 3 or 4 days when a Canadian escort group
took over while we went into New York for refueling and to pick
up stores. It was great to have 24hrs ashore in New York. We were
tied up in Staten Island and the ferry seemed quite tame after the
left is New York, where John had 24hrs ashore when Firedrake was
being refueled and stored.
We then rejoined our convoy and took them all the way to Willemstad,
the capital of Curacao. Curacao is a pleasant island some 25 miles
off the coast of Venezuela, which was visible to the naked eye from
took a week to fill all our convoy of tankers with oil and then
we set off on the long voyage back to the UK. The Caribbean was
dead calm all the way. When things were quite, I acted as second
officer on the bridge to spare some of the executive officers who
had to stand watch at more exacting times. During a sultry tropical
afternoon with the sea calm. I noticed a disturbance in the water
ahead of us, off the port bow. As we approached the spot, it was
a large baulk of timber with an equally large shark swimming round
it and brushing against it, presumably to rid itself of annoying
were relieved by a Canadian escort group off Nova Scotia for two
days then rejoined the convoy after we had refueled. The rest of
our homeward voyage was uneventful and all the tankers got safely
home. We had no significant action or sinking's in our convoys which
we escorted from Londonderry to Argentia in Newfoundland and back.
Having served in "Firedrake" for about 18 months, I was
relieved in November 1942 and it was during her next voyage that
she was sunk with the loss of 168 of her crew. Naturally, I was
most concerned as I knew a lot of the men who were lost and the
ship herself had a personality of which we had grown very fond.
Photographs above were taken on the 16th December 2001 at the reunion
of the HMS Firedrake Association. The photo left is of DR John Aldren
today at the tender age of 85 years. The group photo was taken at
the Cenotaph in Whitehall London after the wreath laying ceremony.
will grow not old,
As we who are left grow old
John T Aldren